Where shall we go for the weekend - Caribbean or Rio? These days, if you haven't got the time but you have got the money, almost nowhere is too far away for a quick break. Here, to kick off our special on long-haul short breaks, Mark Rowe reports on a trend that is opening up dozens of new destinations. We tell you how you can quit the office on Thursday night and get back on Tuesday with an amazing holiday tale to tell

These 21st-century short-break voyagers are bound for the world's most iconic cities, those destinations with a touch of luxury and glamour: Hong Kong, Singapore, San Francisco, Cape Town, Barbados, Rio and Buenos Aires. They fly out on Thursday night and are back at their desk by Tuesday. Jet lag and cost rarely enter the equation. Many will choose to fly club class. Even five years ago, the very idea seemed ludicrous; today, tour operators are scrambling over one another to meet what is a small but growing and extremely lucrative niche market.

The typical long-haul short-break traveller, according to a spokeswoman for British Airways, is the twenty- or thirtysomething without kids or the over-45 couple whose children have left home. They fly for specific reasons: to New York for shopping; to Dubai for beaches and to Hong Kong for a taste of the exotic.

Figures released by the online travel company ebookers earlier this year showed New York was the top destination for short breaks booked with the company, followed by Bangkok and Dubai. Paris, once the long-term number one destination, now trails in behind Los Angeles, Cape Town and Johannesburg. This was the first time in 25 years that a European city did not feature in ebookers' top five destinations.

"We regularly advertise short-break packages to long-haul destinations," said Chris Sherlock, marketing director at ebookers. "Hotels and airlines are switched on to this and have introduced flexibility for people to travel for just a few days. There's so much more accessibility to make these trips easier. Airlines such as Emirates have expanded and offer new routes. The new generation of aircraft, such as the Boeing 777 and Airbus A330 and A340 are cheaper to operate and make affordable deals possible."

Prices are not always as sky-high as one might expect: British Airways Holidays offers return scheduled flights from Heathrow to Hong Kong from £509 per person, with rooms from £17 per person per night at a four-star hotel. A one-way upgrade to club class increases the flight price to £916. Journey Latin America offers four nights at a five-star hotel in Rio including flights and upgrade to World Traveller Plus for £1,338 per person, while three nights in Havana on the same basis costs £983.

"We've been surprised by the growth in this market," admitted Jayne O'Brien, head of marketing in the UK for British Airways. "People are more adventurous with their spare time. They're more pressured at work, so they place more emphasis on frequent short breaks. We've noticed how long-haul breaks are coupled with a growth in the premium market. People are looking to upgrade at least one way and they put an emphasis on the flight as part of the holiday. There's a growing sector of "super-served" people who will pay to get better service and to buy their time back and make sure they feel as good as they can."

British Airways plans to expand its "Prestige" range of holidays to tailor for this new market. "The Prestige range was established for longer holidays and involves a one-to-one service to organise a top-of-the-range holiday with five-star hotels," said O'Brien. "We have plans afoot to include a range of destinations for the long-haul short-break."

Hong Kong is one of the most popular destinations. "More people definitely come to Hong Kong as a destination in its own right rather than as a stopover or as a gateway to Asia," said Madalyn Bielfield, spokeswoman for the Hong Kong Tourist Board. "You can fill the days quite easily. We're encouraging young women who might go to New York to come here for their shopping instead. People are getting more sophisticated and widening their options. But you do have to have more money to even contemplate going to Hong Kong for a short break rather than Europe."

Sherlock believes disposable income is just one factor. "These trips do cost more but you get more for your money. You can spend £10 on a taxi in London or £10 riding an elephant in Thailand. But people are using their leisure time more carefully. They realise they can take a weekend, tag a day on either side and have a break somewhere exotic."

Audley Travel, whose market is predominantly the over-55s, has also noticed the trend. "People moved to the periphery of Europe, such as St Petersburg and Morocco, for breaks and now they are looking at Rio and Cape Town," said Jim Millward, Audley's marketing manager. "A high proportion of people in their fifties are still working and try to squeeze every last travel experience out of their holiday allocation. Travellers with a world perspective are carefully using up their smattering of days for such trips."

The industry is banking on the savvy traveller working out that the potential effects of jet lag can be mitigated. Time differences, or lack of them, can work in your favour and enable you to maximise your time. Time differences for Cape Town are minimal, while night flights to points east allow you to land in Singapore in time for an ice-cold Tiger beer before sunset by the Singapore river. "You watch a couple of films, have a sleep and you're almost there," said Ms Bielfield.

"Jet lag is minimised by short travel over lots of time zones," said Sherlock. "Your body clock doesn't have time to adjust in just a few days. You need a week or more away before your body finds it hard to readjust when you get back home. Regular travellers know these kind of tricks. Flying times can seem daunting but when you ask people do they really want to be stuck on an aircraft for 10 hours the answer is increasingly, 'Well actually, yes I do.' The next morning you can sitting by the harbour in Cape Town or on top of Table Mountain."

Buenos Aires, Rio, Havana and Mexico City are also attracting weekend breakers. "It's the cliché of cash-rich time-poor," said Tim Murray-Walker, marketing manager at Journey Latin America. "It's fantastic going back to work saying you've just been to Buenos Aires or Rio. It's pretty flash compared with your mates who've been to Seville.

"All these cities are feasible for short breaks and we can sell flights and hotels more cheaply than if bought separately. You can stay in some pretty nice hotels for your money. When you're there you can apply the same formula you would in Paris. You can spend all five days in Buenos Aires and not run out of things to see, or you could take a day trip to Colonia in Uruguay. Mexico City is a great place for culture lovers as it has so many museums and you can do trips to the pyramids. Saõ Paulo is another hip city with good restaurants and has a direct flight from London. Havana is perfectly accessible now that Virgin flies there on Thursdays and Sundays."

But many Independent on Sunday readers, already uneasy about flying in the knowledge of the contribution that aviation fuel combustion makes to global warming, may feel that such flights are difficult to justify and draw a line in the sand. "These sort of flights are indulgent but it's difficult to blame people when the Government refuses to tackle the unfair tax exemption the airline industry enjoys," said Richard Dyer, aviation campaigner with Friends of the Earth.

"These kinds of habits are going in exactly the wrong direction from what we need. People should at least look to offset the emissions from such flights, perhaps by contributing to a renewables project in Africa."

But according to Sherlock, the trend may be on something of an upward curve. "A friend recently visited Uganda just for the weekend to see mountain gorillas. While we are seeing huge growth in key destinations, such as New York and Hong Kong, other destinations are being taken up by the more avid travellers and you'll see other more remote destinations rise up the table as awareness increases."